A quarter of American adults do not know that the Earth goes round the sun. Half think that antibiotics kill viruses and almost as many believe electrons are larger than atoms. Results are even worse for the topics where scientific conclusions clash with religious dogma. Only 39% agreed, “The universe began with a huge explosion” is true, while 48% endorsed the statement, “Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals”.
The figures come from the biennial survey conducted by the National Science Foundation, the results of which have been released as part of a wider report, Science and Engineering Indicators, to Congress on the state of science in America.
These findings aren't surprising; since the survey was first conducted in 1999 there has been a small improvement in the proportion answering the five physical science questions correctly, with the most recent survey the best result yet. On the other hand, answers to the biological component of the survey peaked in 2006 and are now back to late 90s levels with 60% correct answers to the six questions.
Although there was a clear correlation between level of education and correct responses even those who had completed three or more university maths or science subjects got 17% of the questions wrong.
The rest of the world can't scoff. The report provides comparisons with a number of other countries, although for some the surveys are ten years old. Residents of the European Union are much more likely to be aware of human evolution (70%) but broadly matched Americans on most other questions, although there are sharp variations by country. In China, India, Russia and even Japan the most recent surveys returned lower correct answers on most questions, although evolution was usually the exception.
The report acknowledges, “Researchers have questioned both the degree to which scientific literacy has substantial impact on how people make decisions in their public and private lives and whether a short battery of questions can assess scientific literacy.” However, the authors argue, “Evidence suggests that knowledge about science...has a small but meaningful impact on attitudes and behaviours.”
The survey also tests probabalistic reasoning and understanding scientific process, and the findings are just as depressing. When asked to compare the value of a drug trial on 1000 people without a control or one where 500 are give the drug and another 500 are used for comparison only 34% understood and could explain that the value of a control group outweighed the benefits of having a larger sample size. Disturbingly, this is identical to the proportion in 1999, after the figure had risen to 51% in 2010. Only one in five Americans were able to explain that the formulation of theories and using rigorous experiments with control groups are key parts of scientific studies. Even amongst those who had completed three or more maths and science subjects at university only 60% were able to answer correctly.
Even if they don't know much about the outcomes of science, Americans do still value scientific research. Half the respondents agreed with the statement “The benefits of scientific research strongly outweigh harmful results” and another 22% thought there was a slight benefit. These numbers have been broadly consistent through the years the study as been taken. Meanwhile, the proportion who see science as a net negative appears to be shrinking and is now below 10%.
Support for basic science is high and getting higher. More than 80% of Americans agree with the statement “Even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government.” Even more encouragingly, 38% thought the government was spending too little on scientific research, while only 12% believe it is spending too much.
Scientists also attract a high level of trust. Asked to rate their confidence in the scientific community 41% expressed a great deal and 49% had “some confidence” a standing second only to the military amongst institutions tested. The nearly 10% of respondents who said they would be “unhappy” if their child wanted to be a scientist or engineer in 1983 has almost disappeared, leaving behind horrified speculation as to why it was there in the first place.
Perceptions of scientists and engineers are generally positive; almost 90% believe scientists “are dedicated people who work for the good of humanity” while the figure for engineers is 79%. However, 36% agree that “Scientists are apt to be odd and peculiar people” while 19% think “Scientists don't get as much fun out of life as other people do”. No information is available as to whether those who think scientists are peculiar and don't have much fun connect this to their dedication to humanity.